Two life-changing events recently happened to my body and consciousness, and both were unforgettable. First was marrying my past life’s soul mate, and second was shaving my head. I have never been given a smile and frown at the same time, so many times and by so many people ever in my life. “Congratulations! What happened to your hair?” See, many Indo-Caribbeans tie a person’s hair to their health, and to have little or none of it at my age means you must have a terminal illness. What was worse was the blame that my wife received for a choice I made on my own. It was shocking, but forced me to confront a power that when I understood it, created a clandestine persuasion of those who remained questioners. The more I began owning the new Rohan, the karmic propagandist, the more Rohan’s emerged from within it.
I’ve been called a “dougla” so many times throughout my life because of my hair. My hair gets a lot of attention – it is a massive fluff of soft curls. When relatives and friends used to refer to me as “dougla,” I thought that the term was synonymous with being of half-Indian, half-African descent. In Guyana, where my parents are from, “dougla” is a term used to describe those who appear to be biracial. However, like the word “mulatto,” “dougla” is often considered derogatory. In Guyana, even to this day, racial tensions exist among the two primary ethnicities of the nation. These tensions have run high for decades, in part due to political turmoil and in part due to competing migrant experiences; Africans migrated as slaves in the late 1600s and Indians as indentured servants in the early 1800s. Many Indo-Guyanese harbor deep seated resentment towards Afro-Guyanese and vice versa, stemming as far back as British colonialization. Calling someone a “dougla” therefore, can be akin to using profanity.
Sadhana is commemorating International Women’s Day by standing in solidarity with Radhika Vemula. We share her grief due to the loss of her son Rohith to casteist discrimination; we condemn the emotional and physical attacks on her integrity and person she has suffered at the hands of police more than once. Sadhana honors Radhika Vemula and pledges solidarity with her, and all those fighting against caste discrimination. We call on Hindus in India and around the world to join us in standing firmly against caste and casteism. If we are all one, interconnected and equally connected to the divine, then we all should have equal access to justice. Join us in declaring that it is unacceptable, unjust and un-Hindu to discriminate on the basis of caste.
The mind cannot begin to fathom how much chaos surrounds us today. As a nation grows weary with divide and mistrust, many of us can barely muster the energy to stand at the forefront of so many issues, let alone understand the depravity of injustice and what it is capable of doing. The nation that taught me growing up that pluralism is key to the development and prosperity of all people is now being challenged by the likes of a monolithic and fervorous nationalism that seeks to blame 'the other', hate 'the other', and hurt 'the other'.
Vandalism and violence have gripped many communities for decades, even centuries now, at the hands of ignorant and equally fearful people who misunderstand others while wanting their own safety and stability. The Jewish community has been one of many communities in 2017 to bears witness to such horrible treatment as over 100 synagogues and Jewish community centers have received calls of bomb threats that have led to evacuations and a sharp increase in the need for added security and intervention from federal agencies. As if this was not enough to show a clear message of hate-mongering towards a specific community, 2 Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia had hundreds of gravesites desecrated and damaged in what could be considered a blunt message...
Hate has left any stone unturned; the depravity of moral consciousness does not even let the dead rest in peace. Neither you nor your deceased loved ones are welcome here.
The level of cowardice and audacity that has emerged from the shadows has no place in a society as diverse and inclusive as the United States of America. More importantly, these harsh words and actions against innocent people defy our duty as Hindus and Americans.
Sadhana Coalition of Progressive Hindus offers our most sincere prayers to the 75 men, women, and children who were killed and the hundreds who were injured earlier this week at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh, Pakistan.
Pakistani author Haroon Khalid writes, "While claiming responsibility for the attack, ISIS called it a Shia gathering. They couldn’t be more wrong. Religious devotees at the shrine of this 12th century saint cannot be compartmentalised into categories through which ISIS sees the world. To his devotees, [Lal Shahbaz Qalandar] is not a Muslim or a Shia saint. He is a peer, who cannot be constrained by confines of religious boundaries. To the Sindhi Hindus, forming the largest religious minority in the country, he is their peer as much as he is the peer for Muslims.
There is perhaps no other shrine in the country that captures the essence of religious syncretism like the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. In his courtyard, it feels as if the riots of Partition never happened, as if Sindhi Hindus were never forced to abandon their land, as if Christian settlements in Punjab had never been burned after alleged cases of blasphemy. The courtyard of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar represents a different world, a world that once existed but has slowly disappeared … The attack is not on the shrine but on this worldview which does not divide humanity into simplistic separate categories." (https://scroll.in/article/829667/pakistan-suicide-bombing-why-isis-feels-so-threatened-by-sindhs-lal-shahbaz-qalandar-shrine)
Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus is participating in a collaborative interfaith effort today, February 9th 2017, to mobilize as many people as possible to call US Attorney Preet Bharara and ask for a full federal investigation into the murder of Mohamed Bah. The number to call is 212-637-2200.
I am a mother of three boys – two are grown and one is still a child. I know what it is to give birth to a boy and raise him to manhood.
On January 12th, I participated in a vigil for another mother’s son who was stolen from her, a woman whose heart is shattered. I hugged Hawa Bah tightly, and felt her whole body shake in my arms with grief.
When I was a toddler, my masi (mother’s sister) gave me a hard back of the Stories from Panchatantra, a book of moral tales where different animals, humans and some of the gods interact.
There is one story that is particularly relevant for our current times. The Four Friends is about a mouse, crow, tortoise and deer. One day, deer was missing, so the other three friends went in search of her, and found her trapped in a hunter’s net, so they helped her free from the net. As they were leaving, the hunter came back, and the four friends fled, however, tortoise was not fast enough to hide, so the hunter grabbed him, and put him in a bag.
This is the Thanksgiving after an election result which has opened the floodgates of hate crimes and incidents, and has filled our immigrant and minority communities with nothing short of terror. The reported hate crimes since election day are now numbered at 701, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Sunday after the election, a group of parents of kids attending Brooklyn Bala Vihar, a Hindu Sunday school where I teach along with other parents, were spat at by a man who said, “I don’t like Indians and Pakistanis.” And a Brooklyn Heights playground where my kids played often when they were small, was defaced with swastikas.
Reflections of a Humble Karma Yogi
Guest presentation by Sunita Viswanath in
“Religions in the City” class at Union Theological Seminary, October 26, 2016
My life’s work has been in women’s rights, but like most left-leaning social justice-oriented Hindus, for most of my life, I kept my work very separate from my religious life. I am not a scholar practitioner, but an ardent activist practitioner, and it is with great humility that I share my journey.
by Sunita Viswanath, Sadhana Co-Founder
The mission of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus is to build a platform for social justice minded Hindus. Since the founding of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, we have been seeking out people of Hindu faith and upbringing who have devoted themselves to social justice and seva (service) for the most needy and marginalized in our world. We define such people as progressive Hindus. Kamala and Gopal Singh don’t think of themselves as “progressive Hindus,” but they are exactly that — two shining examples of progressive Hinduism.
Part of my growing up (ages 5 to 10) was in Madras in the 1970s, in an Andhra Brahmin family. It was during those years that I was taught the basics of the Hindu faith and the joys of puja at home, visits to temples near and far, and the celebration of the major Hindu holy days. It was also then that I witnessed and participated in caste discrimination as part of daily life. I was aware of my family’s upper caste, and even though I was only five years old, I understood that this meant we were somehow better or superior. In my family, when we had haircuts, we had to bathe immediately because the barbers were lower caste and would have polluted us. When the “scavenger” (a term used in India for those who manually clean latrine toilets and also sewers; most people who do this work are Dalits) came to clean the toilet, we weren’t even allowed to lay eyes on her. We had separate (cheaper) rice and separate aluminum (not stainless steel) dishes for servants. I remember also that the women of our household were segregated during menstruation – they stayed in a separate room, weren’t allowed to cook (which, ironically, meant rest), and they also ate on aluminum dishes. I had my first period on a trip to Madras, and my mom wasn’t with me. I too experienced that segregation of menstruating women a few times in my life. I never (in my childhood or adulthood) agreed that people of lower castes and other religions, menstruating, pregnant or widowed women, or anyone at all, were polluting to others and to the things they touched.
While my cousin’s wife, who comes from a lower caste, is now respected and beloved in our family, I remember clearly the scandal and shame of this inter-caste love marriage when they eloped 40 or so years ago. For me, a young girl of seven, fed regularly on Bollywood and South Indian movies, this was the ultimate romance – a story of passion and forbidden love, and to my joy, the lovers won over a tradition I didn’t agree with. Today, my extended family in India is less guilty of such discriminatory practices and many more of my cousins have married outside of their caste, even outside their religion and race. Nevertheless, even now, when some of my family members place matrimonial ads for their children, they identify their caste and require applicants to be of a similar caste, rather than choosing the more progressive “caste no bar” option.
There were some very vivid experiences in my life that were liberating because they enabled me to shed any notions of the impurity of others, and still hold on to my identity as a justice-loving Hindu:
1) The first was when I argued with my aunt as a very young child about having to bathe after a haircut. I argued that it was a good idea to bathe, not because the barber was a lower caste, but because of all the small bits of cut hair that remain in the hair and all over our necks and shoulders. I remember challenging my aunt with the argument that humans seem to always consider someone less or inferior to themselves. “So a right-handed barber probably thinks himself superior to a left-handed barber,” I remember saying. My doting aunt indulged my arguments, but never really changed her opinions. Practices in my aunt’s home have had to change because of a general process of modernization, but not because of a reconsideration of ethics.
2) Soon after my marriage to a Hindu Indian in New York in 1988, my first mother-in-law told me it was perfectly okay to go to the temple even though I had my period. She said, “Do you love God any less because you have your period? Do you feel dirty or impure?” I said no, and we went to the temple.
3) The final example is one of my first meals in Afghanistan, in 2003. Everyone in the house, including drivers and household help, sat down together for the meal, and we all ate from the same plates (with thoughtful accommodations made for the vegetarians in the group). This egalitarian meal was such a powerful antidote to being raised with a mindset that some weren’t worthy of eating with others.
While caste-based violence and discrimination is an everyday reality in India, the topic of caste really doesn’t come up much among Hindus in the United States. However, there is no doubt that both the privilege and stigma of caste have been transplanted to some extent. As Dalit activist Thenmozhi Sounderarajan told Colorlines, “Many of the South Asians who were privileged to migrate [to the U.S.] have privileges related to language, class and, most importantly, to caste. So when the diaspora is said to be “casteless,” or South Asians want to say that caste doesn't exist here, it basically erases the vocabulary we have to talk about the hierarchical privileges we occupy. Caste is all around us. We know that gurudwaras [temples] are organized by caste and that people still marry and associate along caste lines. When you look at the majority of the faculty in South Asian departments in North America, you have one to two professors who are Dalit but none are tenured.”1
I have rarely come across a Hindu temple where the priests are anything but Brahmin men. And caste is most certainly discussed during weddings: parents in the West are having to come to terms with their children marrying non-Hindus and non-Indians, but they are unlikely to be overjoyed at the prospect of a Dalit son- or daughter-in-law. Muslims and African Americans are also unpopular choices for sons- and daughters-in-law.
Interestingly, in the United Kingdom, there are efforts underway to introduce legislation to make caste discrimination an offence. According to an article in The Guardian last month, “Research by the British government has found evidence of caste discrimination among Britons of Asian origin in the workplace and in schools. Legislation is due to be introduced this year to make caste discrimination an offence in Britain.”2
The issue is very contentious and politicized. UK-based advocacy organizations including CasteWatch UK and Dalit Solidarity Network have been leading the efforts to recognize caste discrimination as a form of discrimination distinct from discrimination based on race, gender and religion. Those opposed to such legislation, mostly Hindus and Sikhs, argue that it would lead to institutionalizing caste whereas caste isn’t even a big issue on the minds of South Asians. I certainly wouldn’t want Hindus, Sikhs and others to have to disclose caste at birth when filling out government forms and applying for jobs – this doesn’t seem like progressive change. Personally speaking, I’m not sure what I’d be expected disclose – would I be a Brahmin because of my birth, a Vaishya because of my first marriage, or a Dalit because of my second marriage to a Jew? And yet, there ought to be a way for victims of caste-based discrimination to fight for justice. People don’t have to disclose their sexual orientation when applying for a job, but they can still sue if there is discrimination. Why should caste be any different?
If caste-based discrimination is as rare as Hindus and Sikhs in the West seem to think it is, and we are all committed to ending it, then what is the danger of legislation which criminalizes caste-based discrimination? The onus will be on the victim to prove discrimination – we all know how hard that would be – and if there is proof, then let there be punishment. We know, working on the environment that businesses and individuals don’t abstain from Styrofoam use, nor do they recycle and carry reusable shopping bags because it is the right thing to do; behavior change is encouraged and accelerated by progressive legislation, and I see nothing wrong with that. While the caste debate in the UK is very interesting, I am not aware of any effort to mobilize practicing Hindus to advocate against caste and caste discrimination in their personal lives and faith communities. Sadhana is committed to living and building a Hinduism which rejects caste and caste discrimination.
Hindus are right to point out that there are innumerable instances within our scriptures which teach us that in the eyes of God, we are all one. Many important characters in Hindu epics were from lower castes. For example, Vidhura was born to a shudra mother, and both Krishna and Karna were kshatriyas by birth but were raised in much lower caste families. Valmiki and Kamban who authored versions of the Ramayana, and Veda Vyasa who authored the Mahabharata, were all from castes which we would today consider Dalit. Also, many of our bhakti saint-poets (Tukaram and Raidas are examples) were from the lower castes. Indeed, I believe that Hinduism as expressed in its texts and its history is inherently progressive, and requires no contorted hermeneutics to arrive at its progressive values of justice, fairness and equality.
I want to live in a world where caste is a shameful vestige of the past. I cringe when even here, in the States, I hear people identify themselves as TamBrams or Vaidiki Brahmins. But then, in a way, this is no different to a Dalit person referring to their status with pride. How do we work towards the annihilation of caste when so many people of all castes, high and low, consider their caste a central part of their identity?
So, as Hindus who aren’t ready to turn our backs on Hinduism but who believe in equality and justice, the question is: what exactly do we do?
We can't change history, and we can't change the world overnight, but we can act to address these issues. Here are some baby steps Sadhana is taking:
· We will stay true and committed to the principle of oneness at the heart of Hinduism, the idea that the same divinity is inherent in each one of us, regardless of caste, gender, race, religion.
· We understand the privilege that comes with being born a caste Hindu, and what that status means and does to those who don't have it. We are committed to working against such hierarchy and its toxic effects.
· We will disseminate progressive readings of Hindu texts.
· We will stand in solidarity with Dalit movements for justice, and opposed to all forms of caste discrimination. Truth-telling is core to our sadhana (the practice of our faith) – and we will speak up every time we see injustice and oppression.
· We in Sadhana reject any personal affiliation with caste or the system of castes, We realize that this is a privileged choice, but it is the starting point for our journey into a world where we are all free from the mechanism of caste.. Others can identify as they wish, and if caste is an important part of someone’s identity, we respect their choice so long as they do not see themselves as higher or lower than others, and so long as they do not perpetrate abuses based on caste.
· We will try to worship in temples where all castes participate equally. We may need to help create more such temples that see all as equal, and where anyone can be priests, regardless of caste at birth or gender.
· And most importantly, we dream this dream with humility. In small ways, every day, we will do our part to build a lived Hinduism where all are truly equal.
1 How to Fight a Deadly Caste System, Colorlines, April 21, 2015
2 London house to become museum to Indian activist, Guardian, June 14, 2015
Sunita Viswanath is a co-founder and board member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.
This 21st Century is having a Hindu moment.
Yoga, meditation, karma — these are concepts which have entered American consciousness and life in many diverse ways, but what do they really mean and where do they actually come from? How does the rich spiritual culture of Hinduism inform the identity, ministry, and calling of those involved in Hindu practices? More problematically, how do we deal with the horrific history and reality of caste discrimination of Dalit and other “untouchable” peoples, which echoes the leaking sore of slavery and racial discrimination marring the social body of America?
Some of the most frightening moments in my childhood occurred right in front of the Gods and Goddesses I worship. Between the ages of 8 to 14, my Guru, a Hindu Priest, would schlep me to the homes of his congregants to perform their annual pujas with him. As we sat across from each other, I would watch him as he would instruct those sitting between us to perform rituals to smiling earthen statues, bathing them in milk and breathing them into life. Then he would glance at my eyes, pointing me to pour ghee into a square metal kund filled with wood, cotton balls, and flames, while reciting the mantras necessary for his devotees to receive their blessings. We impatiently waited as the fire turned to smoke and then to ash as he delivered his sermon to a packed living room audience. Once everyone's minds were opened by my Guru's simple contemporary explanations of complex Hindu philosophy, he would peer through the Gods and Goddesses sitting between us, look at me and announce to everyone, "And now we will hear from my Godson, Rohan." Silent, I would not say anything until he gave me yet another glance followed by the stern word, "Speak."
The evidence is the strongest it's ever been: greenhouse gas emissions are the highest ever recorded in history. Over the past 50 years, sea levels have risen, snow and ice are diminishing worldwide, and sound global policies have still not been put into place.
But fear not my sisters and brothers - for there is hope. Our eyes are open, and we can see now. We can see all too well now. My sisters and brothers, we have arrived as a state of existence where we humans would rather separate ourselves based on differences, and deny one that cries out for love. We have become a society that would rather use our "smart" phones to take unintelligible pictures and videos of the decline of society - rather than putting our phones away, working out a solution, and saving this planet.
On June 22nd, the Sadhana Coalition, in partnership with the National Parks Service, Dan Hendrick, and Kamini Doobay, hosted the preview of Jamaica Bay Lives, a documentary film shown at the Shri Trimurti Bhavan, a Mandir in Ozone Park, Queens. Mr. Hendrick, the Vice President for External Affairs at the New York League of Conservation Voters and a graduate of Columbia University, met Ms. Doobay four years ago. He heard about Jamaica Bay’s growing local Hindu population, known for utilizing the Bay to perform Ganga Puja (removing inauspiciousness by honoring Mother Ganga). Ms. Doobay, a graduate of Barnard College who currently attends the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, is a Hindu who has performed Ganga Puja at Jamaica Bay since she was a child.
My fiancé told me when I got ready to write my personal statement for graduate school that, "You know, when you get ready to write your statement, every word should count. It's got to be powerful." This post, written without proofreading, copying and pasting from MS Word, or sourced for hyperlinks, comes at a time when I meditate on what Sadhana stands for. At the beginning of every Sadhana meeting, which takes place at Sunita's loving home in Brooklyn, she would allow me to be me. I would lead off by telling a story. This is one of the stories I told.
Writing a piece on 'what god means to me', is like trying to find an answer I don't have, and don't even feel like I need to find.
Here is an incomplete attempt.
Occasionally, on Sundays I accompany my signo* to the Redeemer Presbyterian church on the Upper East Side to listen to Tim Keller talk about faith, Jesus and God, and watch the audience move along with him.
Last time I went, I heard a story about Jesus getting frustrated and being terse with a man who had come hoping to secure a miracle to save his dying son. That was the first time I ever heard of Jesus getting upset. That interested and relaxed me, so I listened more.
Whether it be the marriage of Lakshmi to Vishnu, the joyous return of Rama to Ayodhya, or the welcoming the Pandavas back to Hastinapur, Diwali has been cause for grand celebration across the globe. Over the course of the last several days Hindus have prepared their homes and their hearts for the entry of light and prosperity.
Navrathri means "nine nights" of worshipping of the Goddess in three of her most well known manifestations in the Hindu tradition. The goddess Durga is worshipped during the first three nights. The next three nights are devoted to Lakshmi, and the last three nights are devoted to Saraswathi.
One of the most empowering stories in Hindu tradition, especially for women, is the story behind Durga worship. One version goes like this: The gods were not able to defeat the powerful demon, Mahisasura (half man, half buffalo). They ran to the Goddess and begged her to help them. The Goddess took the form of Durga to defeat Mahisasura, which she did in an epic battle. As with so much of Hindu tradition, the story is understood on many levels. Good triumphs over evil. The gods needed the special qualities of the feminine to vanquish Mahisasura, who represents negative forces such as ignorance, inertia and darkness. By worshiping Durga, the devotee is summoning her or his inner Shakti or power, to destroy her or his inner negativity, so that she or he may lead a more enlightened, happier life.
On October 8th, Baruch College’s Hindu Student Association (HSA) held it’s second general meeting titled, “What Does It Mean To Be A Hindu?” Hosted in conjunction with Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, Baruch’s HSA led by Journalism major Kamelia Kilawan, attracted students who are curious about where the direction the Hindu religion is going today, and in the future. One student, Raj, a Hindu who finds it hard to relate to certain rituals in Hindu culture, relayed the story of his aunt’s mother who travelled from India to visit her grandchildren in California. He says of her experience, “She was shocked to know that Hindi was not spoken in the home, the foods eaten were not Indian, and the clothes were all American. She feared for her great grandchildren.”